The Arithmetics of Grief

June 27, 2016


The Arithmetics of Grief

14 children recently drowned in Syamozero Lake, Karelia. But does anybody in authority care?

Ilya Klishin

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, two characters, the brothers Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, argue over the worth of a single tear shed by a child. It is a debate that remains unresolved to this day.

But now it looks as if the answer has finally been found in Russia – albeit not the Russia of Dostoevsky, but of Putin. A few days ago, it became abundantly clear that the Kremlin at least knows what a child’s tear is NOT worth: a day of national mourning.

In the early days of the Soviet Union the Pioneers were dreamt up as the Communist answer to the “bourgeois” Boy Scouts. They even had the same neckties, only red ones. The USSR may have long since ceased to exist, and the Pioneers who once saluted Lenin, Stalin and other leaders may now be no more (replaced by Kremlin-supported teenage cynics who believe only in money and their own careers), but Pioneer camps are still popular in Russia. For some unaccountable reason, these sanatoriums and outdoor centres, famous for their dreadful facilities, are still very popular, although some have, in essence, now become nothing better than juvenile torture centres where children are poorly fed and sometimes even beaten. These “camps” are not much better than prison or barracks, in which “inmates” have their every move closely supervised from morning to night, and are forbidden to leave the camp without permission.

Recently, in one such camp – Syamozero Park Hotel – in the north of the Karelian republic, a group of students – who, as it has now been revealed, were forced to work there under threat of expulsion from college – took the children on a boat trip on the lake. There was a storm. Some boats were blown to an island while others capsized. The wind and waves were so strong that it was impossible to swim. Fourteen children died. One managed to ring the Ministry for Emergency Situations (MChS) and call for help. The call handler told him “Stop wasting our time, son” – and hung up on him. The boy drowned.

The day following these deaths, a day of mourning was announced in Karelia and Moscow – as it happened, most of the children were from the capital, and had been sent to the camp by social services. This is yet another survival of the Soviet system: families with lots of children or on low incomes (“disadvantaged families,” as they are called) receive free holidays at these camps. But there was no day of mourning announced for the rest of the country. On the state television channel, Channel One, announcements about the deaths and hotline numbers were interrupted by the comedy show “The Club of the Funny and Inventive” – a horrible juxtaposition.

There are no regulations in Russia governing the announcement of a national day of mourning, but according to some unwritten rule of uncertain origin, a day of mourning is generally announced if a hundred or more people have died. This “arithmetics of grief” is odd, to say the least, but the government doggedly follows this rule, rather than following its heart. Of course, there have been one or two exceptions, For instance, in 1999, a day of national mourning was announced when forty nine people died in a fire at the Samara police station, though, for some reason, it took place only a week later. And the same thing happened in 1996 when a school bus in the Rostov Region collided with a locomotive, killing seventeen children.

How were those seventeen deaths different from the fourteen of the recent tragedy? It is not a question of arithmetic, or even ethics. In the last twenty years, it appears, the bureaucratic spirit in post-Soviet government has put an end to any incipient stirrings of humanity. Since the drowning in Karelia we have witnessed official messages of condolence, of course, and we have seen prominent resignations and arrests, including Yelena Reshetova, the owner of Syamozero Park Hotel, but there has been no formal day of mourning, probably because there has been no mourning among those in authority. The issue at stake here is not even whether those in authority are good or bad; the point is that they are no longer capable of sincerity or of experiencing sincere emotion – even in private.

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